Monday, September 12, 2011

What We Talk About When We Talk About Audience

"Filmed before a live studio audience." It's a phrase that introduced several sitcoms during the 1980's and '90's. The audience sitting in the sound stage of Cheers watched as the romantic tension unfolded between Ted Danson and Kirstie Alley or they listen to the philosophies of the beer-guzzling patrons of the Boston bar. The audience laughed when Cliff made a joke or childishly ooooo-ed when Sam and Rebecca exchanged flirtatious banter. The audience listened; the audience responded.

As writers, we have the responsibility to take note of the audience. The misconception for most students is that the only audience is their instructor. It's unsurprising, considering the main objective for the paper composer is not a clear concise paper, only one that provides a sufficient grade. It's difficult not to fall into that trap; we wish to appease the instructor so we write what he or she would like, or at least what we think he or she would like.

In truth, we never know what he or she would like for sure, save for the skeletal prescription offered by some syllabuses and writing assignment prompts, but sadly we limit ourselves to those parameters. While, yes, it is absolutely necessary to follow the instructions of a syllabus or prompt (there's more help there than you might think), we should strive to go a step further when writing a paper. We should think beyond the person at the podium and who else might read this. The initial thought may be that there is no one else who might read this, but that couldn't be further from the truth. A thoughtful paper will often be made an example for future writers, while the paper composed with less concerted effort will be forgotten or, in the rare worst case scenario, be made a cautionary example.

The easiest way to this may be to picture the reader before we begin composing, specifically when we're brainstorming ideas. If our first thought is our instructor, we must dash that image right out and start from scratch. Our audience will be dependent on our discipline--an economics paper will be intended for fellow economists, while a literary paper will be written with literature specialists in mind. While making such associations might be easy enough, the next part is easier said than done: we must think of a topic that will interest a large body of readers. While it will require more effort on our part, treating a paper less like an assignment and more like a work to be read by more than just our instructor will put us in a mindset for researching more and developing an unique and thoughtful argument about which to write.

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